JOHNS ISLAND -- Dale Snyder plants tomato and cucumber seeds, weeds rows of cabbages and gauges the temperature of fermenting, soil-enhancing compost.

But the former national media executive is an unlikely farmer.

Before this year, the most extensive planting he did was in pots on the porch of his Sullivan's Island home.

Snyder, along with Charleston physician George Taylor, his wife Betty Taylor and Helen Moorefield, recently started the nonprofit Sweetgrass Garden Co-op on about two acres on Plow Ground Road on Johns Island. George Taylor purchased the land, which he leases to the co-op for a dollar a year. The group, which met at Circular Congregational Church, is growing vegetables that it will provide free to the area's low-income and homeless people through service agencies.

And Snyder is taking the lead in the hands-on farm work. "It's great to feed the homeless, but this takes it to a different level," he said.

Eventually, the co-op will sell some of what it produces to cover expenses, so the project will be financially self-sustaining in the long run.

So how does a man who spent 30 years in the television business learn how to run a farm? Snyder is doing it through Clemson University's New and Beginning Farmer program.

David Lamie, a Clemson professor and extension economist, said about 36 new farmers are enrolled this year, which is the first year the program has been offered. It was launched with a $750,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

The state needs to encourage new farmers to enter the business, he said, because today's farmers are aging. And the recent increase in the demand for locally grown foods, along with the premium price farmers can get for them, makes it a good time to enter the business, he said.

Some of the new farmers in the program are growing traditional "row crops," Lamie said. But others are producing for niche markets including: growing hops, which can be used to make beer; raising turkeys; and even raising water buffalo, the milk from which can be used to make high-end mozzarella, he said.

Snyder said the program teaches a lot about the business of farming. "It helps make your farm profitable so you can be in this business," he said. He first heard about the program through a sustainable agriculture class he took at Trident Technical College.

In addition to business advice, the Clemson program has connected him to many individuals and services that can advise him on working the land. "When you tie into Clemson, you tie into major agricultural resources," Snyder said.

There's a lot of help and camaraderie to be found on Johns Island, in the farming community, and among charitable people, he said.

Nikki Seibert, director of sustainable development for Lowcountry Local First, said one the many things her group is trying to do is to support local farmers and grow the next generation of farmers. The group has worked with Snyder to help him find educational opportunities and grants, she said.

Farming should be "environmentally responsible, socially just and economically viable," she said. Sweetgrass Farm is striving for all of those attributes, she said. And the place simply has a good feeling about it. "You feel like anyone is welcome there."

Snyder's group was successful in landing a nearly $10,000 grant from the Southern Sustainable Agriculture Research & Education program to study whether fish waste, that is the parts left after cleaning them, would make good organic compost. If it does, the group also has to get the word out about it.

Now, in addition to planting, watering, weeding and eventually harvesting, Snyder regularly measures the temperature of compost piles to determine if the material is ready to use in the field.

So far, the farm has drawn a great deal of support, he said. Volunteers from a local church come out to help, a group of students from the University of South Carolina Beaufort helped on the farm during "alternative spring break," and a group of children from Charleston Collegiate School made the scarecrows.

"We're not alone here," Snyder said. "There's tremendous support."

Reach Diane Knich at 937-5491.